Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Life and Times of Daniel Lambert

At the time of his death in the summer of 1809 Daniel Lambert, Leicester’s celebrated colossus weighed in at 52 stone and 11lb and was a wobbly wonder of the age. People paid good money to see the enormous man and he even achieved celebrity status because of his weight. What people of the time didn't know was that Daniel didn't enjoy being ogled for his size but all his life he swallowed his pride and took the money – it’s not like he could take an ordinary job anyway.

Daniel Lambert was known as 'Britain's fattest man'
Daniel Lambert was known as ‘Britain’s fattest man’ – a vulgar phrase but the 19th century wasn't know for being a politically correct period of history. Visitors to Daniel were obliged to remove their hats on meeting the man and were expected to engage in polite and intellectual conversation. Interestingly, Daniel wasn't taken to be a ‘freak’ like ‘The Elephant Man’ Joseph Merrick, he was a man that mixed with the top men In society – bankers, stockbrokers, businessmen and, on one occasion, King George III himself.

But although we are painting a nice picture of Daniel’s life, not everybody was quite so polite. One visitor angrily announced that the money he paid to see the ‘big man’ was to pay for Daniel’s oversized clothes and he wanted to know what it all cost: “Sir, if I knew what part of my next coat your shilling would pay for,” Lambert replied, “I can assure you I would cut out the piece.”

Old photograph of Daniel's breeches.
As you can tell from his reply, Daniel was an intelligent man. His suit cost him £20 in the early at the turn of the 19 century – that’s around £1,400 in today’s money. The money he made was of course used to pay for his clothes – his weight was his livelihood after all – but any extra cash that the big man made funded his passion. No, it wasn't art or music, but cockfighting, breeding hunting dogs and gambling. When Daniel died he was in Stamford but what brought him there was horseracing, on what was thought to be the big man’s final tour of the country. When a man from the Stamford Mercury arrived to see Lambert, he was already in bed, fatigued with life as a massively overweight man.

Fantastic picture of one of Leicester favourite son's
“The orders he gave upon that occasion were delivered without any presentiment that they were to be his last,” reported the paper, “and with his usual cheerfulness. He was in bed, one of large dimensions, fatigued with his journey but anxious that the bills might be quickly printed in order to his seeing company next morning.”

That night, Daniel Lambert drifted off to sleep, not knowing that that night would be his last.

Early Life
Daniel Lambert was born in Blue Boar Lane, Leicester, in 1770. He was a healthy child and nothing would suggest he’d become the colossal man that he was. A childhood friend, the Leicester composer William Gardiner, even recalled giving Lambert piggy-back rides to and from school. The following was printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1809: “From the extraordinary bulk to which Mr Lambert attained, the reader may naturally be disposed to enquire whether his parents were persons of remarkable dimensions. This was not the case nor were any of his family inclined to corpulence excepting an uncle and an aunt on the father’s side who were both very heavy.”

As Lambert grew older he ballooned and by the time he was 23 years old he was already 32 stone. It wasn't that he was an indulgent fellow either, it was thought to be due to a hormonal imbalance. Daniel never ate more than one dish at a meal after all and he didn't even drink alcohol.

Daniel’s father was a gaoler and Lambert followed in the family business, finding work at Leicester’s Bridewell Prison in 1791. It is reputed that Daniel was a well-liked man, especially by the prisoners as he spent time with those in the cells, giving them words of comfort instead of judgement for their crimes. It was due to his size that Daniel had to leave his job – the narrow passages were too small for him to traverse. Obviously he needed a source of income and although he had an initial idea, it left a bitter taste in his mouth.

A crude depiction of Daniel with an exaggerated thin lady.
The Gentleman’s Magazine commented: “Such were the feelings of Mr Lambert that no longer than four years ago he abhorred the very idea of exhibiting himself. Though he lived exceedingly retired at Leicester, the fame of his uncommon corpulence had spread over the adjacent country to such a degree that he frequently found himself not a little incommoded by the curiosity of the people which it was impossible to repress. Finding at length that he must either submit to be a close prisoner in his own house or endure all the inconvenience without receiving the profits of an exhibition, Mr Lambert wisely strove to overcome the repugnance and determined to visit the Metropolis for that purpose. As it was impossible to procure a carriage large enough to admit him, he had a vehicle constructed expressly to carry him to London.”

Daniel’s Death
Lambert toured the country and in 1809 he was in Stamford. At the Waggon and Horses, where Daniel stayed, Daniel Lambert woke up and had a shave but he began feeling short of breath and within minutes he collapsed. By 8.30am that morning, he died.

Daniel’s 52-stone body proved a problem. They couldn't carry him through the door so a wall and a window at the Waggon and Horses had to be demolished to remove his body. The undertaker had to build a custom –made coffin too - six feet four inches long, four feet four inches wide, looking almost like a square case. The Stamford Mercury described a box crafted from “112 superficial feet of elm, built upon two axle trees and four clog-wheels and upon these, the remains of the poor man were rolled into his grave in the new burial ground at the back of St Martin’s church. A regular descent was made by cutting away the earth slopingly for some distance. A large concourse attended his funeral and in the course of the day many hundred persons from the neighbourhood visited the grave.”

The landlord of the Waggon and Horses – Mr Berridge – kept two of Lambert’s suits as keepsakes for visitors to his establishment, one of which was later sold to the landlord of the pub opposite.

Well Remembered
At first, Lambert’s grave was unmarked but when the townspeople of Leicester learned of the demise of their local celebrity, his friends paid for a headstone to be erected on his grave in Stamford churchyard, with touching words etched on the stone:

In remembrance of that prodigy in nature Daniel Lambert.

A native of Leicester who was possessed of an exalted and convivial mind and, in personal greatness had no competitor.

Daniel's grave - his head and foot stones remain on display.

by Matthew Sibson

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